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Politics of Scripture

Possessed by Jesus

In a world of increasing anti-Jewish sentiments, we do well to note at whom Jesus points a finger. It’s not at Judaism, it’s at Rome.

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

John 2:12–22 (NRSVue)

Often titled “Jesus Cleanses the Temple,” John 2:13-22 is sometimes misinterpreted as a rebuke or admonishment of ancient Judaism. Jesus flips over tables and calls the Temple establishment names. He chastises the merchants and turns loose their profits. He fastens a whip and drives out herds. Seemingly rife with fodder for blaming Jews, it’s easy to read this well-known passage as an anti-Jewish text, but a closer reading tells another story.

Before turning to the text, it is helpful to note that throughout the narrative John reminds us that this is a Jewish story. It begins with a Jewish festival. It takes place at the Jewish Temple in a Jewish city. Its central characters are Jewish. It calls to mind significant Jewish events and it invokes Jewish scriptures. Judaism, as it stands, isn’t on trial; it’s the heartbeat of the story—the steady pulse that keeps the narrative alive.

At the story’s outset, Jesus enters the Temple and stumbles upon tables of merchants and money changers selling animals for the observance of Passover. Many Jews in antiquity traveled long distances for pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover, and often relied on the ability to purchase animals for sacrifice within the city walls. Passover, therefore, was a good time to do business and business was likely booming for the merchants and money changers Jesus encounters.

The story continues with a string of reactions. Jesus is angry. He makes a whip, drives out the sheep and cattle, empties the coin purses, and overturns the tables. After these strong reactions, Jesus finally finds his voice and uses his words to identify his motive and justify his actions: “Take these things out of here!,” he says, “Stop making my Father’s House a marketplace!”

But the specifics of Jesus’s rebuke are lost in translations of this verse. Jesus doesn’t just call it a marketplace. He calls it a “house of emporium” (oikos emporiou). Two things stand out. First, an emporium isn’t any old marketplace. It’s a leading center of commerce and trade. It’s a bigger accusation. This is more than the simple exchange of a few goods. Second, when John’s Jesus offers his critique, his language changes. He doesn’t call it a temple (hieron) of emporium, he calls it a house (oikos) of emporium. The noun has changed. Jesus’s language makes it clear. His critique is not religious, it’s economic. His problem isn’t with the Temple itself, but with the way it’s being run. 

In antiquity the Jerusalem Temple was embedded within the economic and political structures of the Roman Empire and its elite leaders often benefited from this arrangement. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus records that temple priests, for example, drew significant wealth from the collection of tithes and offerings (Vita 63) and even seized payments from the region’s most vulnerable (Ant. 20.181) John’s Jesus takes issue with the political and economic power of these temple elites. The Synoptic Gospels’ versions of this story similarly pay heed to the economic transgressions of the temple elite. In their versions of the story, Jesus calls the Temple a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17; Matt 21:13; Luke 19:46). Again, neither the Temple nor Judaism are to blame. The emphasis is on the robbers, the people. Jesus takes issue with the religious and political leaders embedded within the unjust economic practices of imperial Rome. In a world of increasing anti-Jewish sentiments, we do well to note at whom Jesus points a finger. It’s not at Judaism, it’s at Rome and its economic allies.

As you might guess, the religious-political authorities aren’t too keen on Jesus’s scolding, and they challenge him, asking him for a sign. Jesus, in response, tells them to destroy the Temple (naos) and rebuild it in three days. In the second half of this pericope, John’s Jesus invokes the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and recalls a most devastating event—the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). It is helpful to remember here that the Fourth Gospel’s author writes sometime after the Temple is destroyed. This recollection, then, reminds the Gospel’s Jewish audience that even though the Temple no longer stands, God’s good purposes will prevail. Using the death and resurrection of Jesus to make sense of the Temple’s fall, John’s Jesus assures John’s audience that Rome’s time will come. Those who resist God’s good purposes for the world will be defeated.

In her 2020 novel, The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd offers a meaningful retelling of this well-known scene at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. In her interpretation of the story, Jesus and his wife, Ana, have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover. At the Temple, they see an old woman wearing a widow’s robe and weeping at the tables of the money changers and merchants. She has the two sesterce required to purchase a lamb, but she doesn’t have the additional one required to change her money into the currency of the Temple. Holding out her two coins, she pleads, “How am I to observe Passover?” At this, one of the money changers pushes her hand away and tells her to leave. The widow’s cry for help isn’t met with benevolence. It’s met with violence. She’s physically forced aside.

Jesus’s jaw tightens and his face reddens at the events he’s just witnessed at the Temple. Asking Ana for a sesterce, Jesus takes the coin, slams it down on the table, and grumbles about the economic practices of the money changers and merchants. Jesus is visibly vexed, but this isn’t the only time merchants have provoked Jesus to anger. A few pages earlier, Kidd’s Jesus recounts a childhood story. He tells Ana about a time he let loose birds from a cage after seeing a merchant treat them unkindly, feeding them pebbles and poking them with sticks.

As Ana witnesses Jesus’s confrontation with the money changers and merchants in Jerusalem, she is similarly moved to action. She marches over to the pen, pops the latch, and opens the gate. Lambs subsequently flood the street.

This is where Kidd is on to something notable in her version of the Gospel’s Temple scene. The story continues beyond Jesus. Just as he freed the birds, Ana freed the lambs. She picks up where Jesus left off. His story lives on through her.

What might it look like in our 21st century context to follow Ana’s lead in living out the life of Jesus? Whose tables need overturning? What cages need loosening? These are the questions followers of Jesus, and all who are inspired by his example, must ask themselves today. These are the questions that spur action. This is how his story lives on. 

As Jesus and Ana fled the chaotic scene in Kidd’s novel, Jesus asked Ana what possessed her. “You did,” she replied. May we all be possessed by examples as powerful as this one of Jesus. May we all be unafraid to head out into the world and rattle a few cages.

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